In a vacuum, nobody can hear you scream. A 0-1 defeat to legal commercial sports entertainment entity MK Dons brought Oxford United’s 18 game unbeaten run to an end. Oxford fans made up over 2,500 of the crowd with the home support made up of over 8,000 soulless ghouls whose disinterest in the game seemed to suggest they’d taken a wrong turn looking for the soft furnishings section of the Ikea next door.
Now Charlie Methven has hung up his brown suede moccasins, Sunderland are looking to the future. The struggling League 1 minnows are interested in Feyenoord midfielder Liam Kelly to support their push to mid-table. But, if Kelly prefers to get a four to six week mid-season break with a spurious soft muscle injury KRob is also interested.
It was the Fans’ Forum on Tuesday. Tiger turned up in a pair of slippers and braces, like your dad wearing all his Christmas presents at the same time while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Zaki the Unstoppable Sense Machine threatened to record a club song with a local musician. We look forward to Jamie Mackie spitting sick bars over Radiohead’s ethereal electronica underlaid by moody static and spartan syncopated beats; a real terrace anthem.
Preceding the game, the Oxford Ultras put in an impressive display as a tribute to Jim Smith. The original plan was for an image of the legend’s face, but catastrophe struck when three ultras collapsed in exhaustion during the set up after getting lost in the middle of the great man’s bald head.
Somehow, in the post-match reporting of our defeat to Manchester City, we achieved third billing in a two-horse race. On Radio Oxford people gushed about their pride in our performance as nationally Mikel Arteta’s move to coach Arsenal and Manchester City’s march towards the final pushed our contribution into the margins.
I got to the ground early due to social media driven parking anxiety. I’ve never failed to park at the Kassam, but when messages filter through about how busy it is around the ground I find myself praying that I can squeeze in.
I headed, unecessarily, straight into the stadium. There was a smattering of people milling about; the East stand with its new mural and display cards looked resplendent, new animated advertising boards twinkled. There was a buzz of media, security and cameras. It was a little glimpse behind a curtain to see what we could become.
Once the cameras were turned on and the nation, subject to a subscription, tuned in, the advertising boards promoted hair loss clinics, erectile dysfunction, beer and betting; jimmying away at male pre-occupations. You can buy the Manchester City kit via Amazon we were told, the modern world is a hellspace.
In truth, I quite like Manchester City; at least I admire their dedication to perfection. But they seem like a lottery winner racked with guilt and anxiety at the status they’ve gained; trapped in their own world. Each goal was greeted with muted celebration; seconds after the ball had hit the net, their fans were still and quiet. These were the celebrations of an IT sales team after securing the renewal of a moderate contract. Winning is just business as usual. Their transformation over the last decade is like someone knocking down a ramshackle thatched cottage and building a boxy modern three bed house in its place. As they creep towards perfection, they become less interesting, perhaps less interested.
The Carabao Cup has become such an odd competition; three games from Wembley and it’s still not about playing your best team. The aim is to play the weakest winning team you can get away with. The media talk about how the Premier League weaken their teams, ignoring our own starting eleven features several players who only feature sporadically in the league.
The quarter-final took the adventure to a new level, like a hang glider caught on a freak thermal edging towards the stratosphere. Exhilarating though it was, as the air thinned, we tipped from a thrilling risk to an inevitable death.
Beforehand, a tribute to Jim Smith. So often a minute’s silence, or its modern affectation, the minute’s applause can feel like it’s a forced duty. This felt necessary and authentic; declaring Jim Smith for ourselves, imbibing his spirit into the club where he can rest.
The template was set early; they were faster and more progressive, they didn’t stretch for over hit passes or fumble with the ball as though it were alive. It was all simple and incisive; the early goal looked ominous.
Time ticked by slowly; dragged by a creeping dread that we were going to get mauled. The conditions helped and hindered in equal measure. Crosses billowed out beyond the corner flag. Chances wafted away in the wind.
Half time was a relief; a 1-0 thrashing. A potential, though unlikely opportunity to re-group and address the imbalances, or at least contain the damage.
The tourists, the half-and-half scarves, the irregulars, the place was crawling with them, with the result settled, half-time was an opportunity for an extended midweek beer, they thought; the second half could wait.
Seconds into the half though, back on the pitch Daniel Agyei fell theatrically. Shandon Baptiste took a rolling free-kick that should have been called back, Matty Taylor cut across his marker, youthful talent beaten by streetwise experience. A swing at their glass jaw and a connection. 1-1.
Mayhem. Jubilation. Fear? We’d tapped the hornets nest. We were back in it and at the same time, we were also toast.
It wouldn’t last and didn’t. Sterling twice gets on the end of those precise, incisive moves which make us look like a park team. Then they lose focus, or perhaps we lose inhibitions. Encouraging forays forward merge into half chances, which merge into full chances, which merge into 20 minutes of attacking dominance.
If it were a tighter game, we probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity, but after two flat performances, our swagger was back. And against the champions of England.
A second goal might have changed things, but it didn’t come, the window of opportunity closed. All told, no injuries, a competitive performance and an injection of confidence. The best defeat since losing the Middlesborough in 2017. Can it propel us through Christmas, the transfer window and our injury crisis? Could it catapult us through to promotion? Midst the talk of Arteta and City, maybe we walk away with nothing, perhaps, everything.
Last week, I wrote about our 1983/4 League Cup run, inspired by this season’s run to the quarter finals. On one level, it’s very similar but in many more ways it’s very different. Admittedly, I was considerably younger, but back then I was very accepting of our wins over Newcastle and Leeds, as though they were both normal. When we drew Manchester United in the fourth round took us to another level of excitement and anticipation.
By comparison, the draw for the quarter-final of this year’s competition has seen us paired against Manchester City. The reaction was, shall we say, more muted.
If you’d ranked the remaining teams in the competition in terms of preference, City would have come far down the list. But, this is a giant of European football, the dominant team in the domestic game, some of the best players in the world. Are we being reasonable treating it with such disdain?
Possibly, having played City last year, it’s difficult to get excited by a re-run particularly as it’s likely to end in a similar result. But, there are few teams in League 1 that have entertained such illustrious hosts and fewer still that have done so this deep into the competition. So, it’s a big team in a big game and let’s face it, we’ve sold out in double quick time, so despite the sniffiness from some quarters, it’s not lacking in interest.
But, even then, it’s not comparable to the thrill of Manchester United in 1983, or Arsenal the following year.
The problem is not so much about the draw or the opponents, but more a reflection of the modern game as it evolves.
The first thing is that the growth of the Premier League and Champions League has resulted in the League Cup becoming so devalued that it struggles for high value sponsors and media interest. Sponsors and TV companies want as much bang for their buck as possible, and with the tournament on the wane, the Football League are not in a strong bargaining position.
The quarter-final draw almost certainly guarantees a semi-final, and final with big teams in it, which in turn ensures big TV audiences. This year’s competition has seen an abnormally high number of tasty match ups – the fourth round had Chelsea v Manchester United, Arsenal v Liverpool and Wolves v Villa. Prior to that there was Nottingham Forest v Derby, Southampton v Portsmouth, Salford v Leeds and MK Dons v Wimbledon. Is the draw fixed? I think there’s every chance that it’s ‘organised’ to ensure that it retains sufficient interest with sponsors and TV.
So, where in the past we’ve been excited by the fate of the draw – which is why we watch two middle aged ex-footballers pulling balls out of a bag on prime time TV – this year it feels a more contrived; as if we’ve been paired with a big team in order to swat us out of the way.
But also, whereas back in 1983 there was a sense that we might win the tie against Manchester United I don’t think anyone realistically thinks this is possible against City. They’re almost unbeatable, and certainly by the likes of us. The chasm is so big that it is no longer a sporting spectacle, but an entertainment product. Like watching WWE wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters; the result is effectively decided, as consumers, we’re just expected to sit back and enjoy the ride.
I want to be wrong; and if we do find ourselves still in it with twenty minutes to go, I fully expect to be heavily invested in the game. But, as I’m sat here today, would I be disappointed with a defeat? No. Am I looking forward to the game? Not as much as I’m looking forward to a tasty, competitive, top of the table clash with Wycombe Wanderers three days later.
In the past, even the biggest teams could be beaten by lower league teams. Against Premier League teams outside the top six that’s still true as we proved against Swansea and West Ham, but Manchester City, and similarly Liverpool, are now transcending that, we’re all just bit part players in their play.
For sponsors and TV this is all fine; having big unbeatable teams guarantees slick and beautifully produced ‘product’. It satisfies whatever motivation the owners have for their club as well. But it’s not a sporting competition. Teams like us get in the way, we might produce an upset that stirs the loins, but the chances are we won’t and TV can no longer afford to have a product with that kind of uncertainty.
So what we are now facing is our own infallibility; against West Ham, Millwall and even Sunderland we had a chance, we enjoyed the challenge and celebrated the success. Had we drawn, say, Aston Villa, then we would have been overjoyed because of the prospect of it being a sporting contest. In reality, we’re probably facing a routine elimination, and possibly by a large margin, which is no way to end a story.
I don’t think any of this is deliberately corrupt; the arranging of the draw or the dominance of Manchester City, but it is corrosive. It’s like casual sexism or using single use plastics – people aren’t doing it to be deliberately damaging – it’s just how things have evolved and it’s not helpful.
There will be those who argue I should just sit back and enjoy it, even if the result is fairly predictable. But, the new Star Wars film opens the following day, and predictable enjoyment is what I expect from that. Perhaps it’s an outdated concept, one lost to the 80s, but with football, I want a sense of raw competition.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Portsmouth was preceded by a Remembrance ceremony so shambolic, it made the First World War look like an episode of Great British Bake-Off. After a minute’s silence, which lasted for well over three, the teams appeared for yet another minute’s silence. Then, in the 90th minute, Matty Taylor popped up to nod home Oxford’s equaliser. Portsmouth fans then meticulously observed several more minutes of silence as they trudged home.
Sunday 3 November 2019
It’s been debated for years and divided families, but finally it seems to be happening. Yes, Lincolnshire sexiest people have been ranked. Our own Mr Big Guns, and new Lincoln manager, Michael Appleton muscled in at number 11.
Who is he sexier than? it’s…… Rebekah Vardy (45th), Nicholas Parsons (31st) and Rob Lowe – an America who once played a policeman from Lincolnshire.
Michael isn’t as sexy as Sergeant Mike ‘Tempo’ Templeman from Channel 5’s Police Interceptors or number 1 – Bhasha Mukherjee who is A beauty queen! A woman! and a Doctor! A combination we all know is not actually possible.
Monday 4 November 2019
We were thrust into the vice-like jaws of Big Football on Monday as it was announced that our Type 1 Diabetes Cup Quarter-Final against cash bores Manchester City will be Live! On! Sky! On! Wednesday! 16! December! This will allow the club to suckle on the teat of Sky’s cash cow to the tune of £125000. The game they’re calling ‘Man City Covets Thy Neighbours Ox’ or something, accommodates City’s big game against Arsenal on Sunday, which Sky are billing as ‘The Big Man’s Arse’ – which we all thought was Scott McNiven.
It was the Six Minute Ten Seconds Fans Forum on Thursday with Jamie Mackie. ‘Who winds you up in training?’ was the first question which caused Mackie to collapse on the floor holding his head, theatrically check his forehead for blood and moan for the rest of the interview about how he’s not getting any protection from the rough-housing.
Friday 8 November 2019
You have to feel for Sunderland, it’s like they live in a parallel universe. One website has suggested that the benevolent failure-magnets could be good enough to take Cameron Brannagan off our hands in January. This is due to us ‘punching above our weight’ (aka punching above Sunderland). The Mackem’s would walk League 1 if less entitled clubs would get out of the way and let them do it.
It’s not unusual to forget something when you move house; the bread maker in the loft or the cat. When Oxford United moved from The Manor to The Kassam, we forgot to pack our soul.
Rageonline tells me it was January 2006 about 2.40pm, we were playing Darlington. I was sitting in my car facing the East Stand. It was cold so I took a punt at parking in the car park, when I got there, I had my pick of the spaces. Nobody had bothered to turn up. We lost 2-0.
Two weeks later we were playing Rochdale. The mood was sombre, the atmosphere was dead. We didn’t know it, but the Kassam-era was coming to an end. In a few weeks fans would be storming the stadium in protest; days after Nick Merry and Jim Smith would stride out as the public face of our new owners.
Amidst all the bleakness, spontaneously, the East Stand struck up a heavy rhythm – clapping, chanting and banging seats – it was loud and unrelenting, completely at odds with the meandering on the pitch.
For the rest of the season, although we were tanking on the pitch, the fans started reclaiming their club. At the Manor, we inherited it from our forebears; it’s stories, the giant killings, promotions, the players; all soaked into the walls of the old place. We left it all behind; we became consumers, even though what we were consuming tasted increasingly sour. The fans had to reimagine its relationship with the club.
This wasn’t the start of the Oxford United Ultras, who announced recently they were folding after ten years, but the idea of fan participation was starting to stir. Despite relegation to the Conference, the embers of that idea remained. A giant flag was purchased and unfurled in time for every crushing defeat and false dawn. It was a gallant attempt at creating atmosphere, but the problem was that the noise from the East Stand was muffled and nobody could clap when holding it up.
In 2007, Aldershot Town visited the Kassam. It was early in the season and they were flying. Their fans had hold of their destiny – they turned up in huge numbers, festooned with flags and balloons; a wall of red and blue, willing them to succeed. It was a carnival of the like I’d never seen before. In stark contrast, Arthur Gnohere handled comically in the box conceding a penalty. They won 3-2, then went on to win promotion back to the Football League.
It was a low, but things were looking up. Chris Wilder took over in 2008 and went on a run that nearly got us into the play-offs. We were docked five points for playing an ineligible player, exactly the number of points we fell short by. The injustice of it all ignited something.
The summer was a blur – Wilder brought together a squad full of flair and aggression. Constable, Green, Midson, Clarke, Creighton; names that would become legends.
Off the field things were moving; fan groups, partly fuelled by social media, were emerging, planning and plotting. First pre-arranged areas for home games, then flags, then more. Many of the groups died, or merged, it takes energy to turn pub dreams into reality. There’s an irony about ultra movements; they seem unruly and anti-social, but in reality they have to be organised and structured, funding has to exist, people have to do things to do things.
I’m not keen on military analogies, but we became like an invading army. We had James Constable, Mark Creighton and Adam Murray controlling things on the pitch and a cacophony of flags and banners filling the away end, the air was filled with yellow and blue smoke bombs, our relative size in the Conference had been a burden, now it was becoming an asset.
I’ve said before that I know players rarely support the team they play for, but I want their time at Oxford to be the best of their career. Lower league football can be unforgiving and spartan, the joy of playing with the backing of the Ultras must have been immense.
We swept to promotion on a sea of optimism and a riot of colour. Back in the Football League, despite a couple of memorable wins over Swindon, but the fun started to dwindle. The flags were still waved; banners appeared at the back of the stand. There was something, but it was a battle to keep the energy going, particularly at home.
In 2016, though, the movement peaked. The year kicked off with the now fabled Austrian tour, it is easy to forget that we drew 0-0 playing in the previous season’s kit with no sponsor. What is memorable is the crowd, the bewildered looks on the faces of the players at the fervent optimism. Without that, the tour would have been meaningless.
The plan for the season was uncompromising; we weren’t just going for promotion, we were going for everything. In the JPT we were once again drawn against Swindon. Although they were in a division higher, the balance of power was shifting. The aim was not to beat them heroically as we had in 2011 and 2012, we were going to dominate them on and off the field.
Something special was promised by the Ultras, though the details were kept under-wraps, immediately before the game it wasn’t evident what was planned. As the players emerged from the tunnel, from the top of the East Stand, a flag was unbundled and passed down to the front.
The ambition was staggering; it stretched from the top of the East Stand to the bottom, featuring a giant, angry ox with a robin impaled on one of its horns. I am rarely stopped in my tracks at football; years of following the same club and the same routine does that to you, but this was nothing short of breathtaking.
At the Swindon end, a banner was meekly held aloft, some streamers disappeared into the night sky; we’d won and hadn’t even kicked off.
The season was a blur; against Swansea another display in the East Stand, criminally ignored by live TV cameras, then for the final game against Wycombe, another.
In between, the back wall of the East Stand was festooned with banners featuring a myriad of opaque cultural references – Time for Heroes (acknowledged by The Libertines on Match of the Day), Always and forever, Remember 86, That Sweet City. Even for run-of-the-mill games, the ultras brought life to our soulless home by quoting Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.
Promotion brought another reward – yet another pair of derbies against Swindon Town. A critical aspect of any victory is the ability to surprise; following the giant flag, the Robins knew something was coming. Whatever was being planned, the Ultra’s response needed to be beyond good.
Again, a plan was hatched, preparation was needed. The night before, the Ultras gave every seat in the East Stand a flag. It must have taken hours. The morning of the game was miserable and drizzly, but there was a bigger problem; a great section of the flags had been removed. Swindon fans? Kids? The plan had been scuppered. Or had it?
This is where the Ultras’ work is underestimated; rather than just giving in, they were back in the stadium repositioning the flags, removing the broken ones, making sure everything was right.
And just before 3pm, the effect was heart stopping, a sea of colour another crushing blow before a ball was kicked.
There were so many other displays – against Manchester City, for our 125th birthday, but in the background, politics was playing its part. All displays are going to test health and safety rules, if they don’t, then they’re probably not worth doing. The club started moving the goalposts, the Ultras felt like they were being taken for granted.
Perhaps they just ran out of energy and money, but it seems like The Ultras, the visual spirit of the club, became a pawn in ongoing arguments between the club and the stadium company. Like a divorcing couple using their kids to emotionally blackmail each other. Just after their 10th birthday, it was announced the Ultras would be retiring their flags at the end of the season, but another altercation with the stadium company finally killed their spirit and they closed.
If the Oxford United Ultras’ only contribution was to bring personality back to the club after it had been stripped bare by its owners, that would have been achievement enough. But they grew so much beyond that, they created defining moments in the modern history of the club.
And then some; we live in a world of corporate football, where atmospheres are paid for and organised by billionaire owners. People applaud fan movements, and visual spectacles, if there was a better, more authentic, more spectacular, more ambitious fan group in the country than the Oxford United Ultras, I’ve yet to see them.
I like the Premier League; I get all the arguments about the obscene amounts of money being thrown around and the effect foreigners have on the England team, but in the end it’s all a bit of a blur of numbers and names and I’ve long given up trying to keep up. Instead, I quite enjoy the spectacle; the games, the goals, Match of the Day and in a world where you’re lucky to have two teams with a chance of a domestic league title, the fact there are five or six who can win it, the competitiveness.
I even quite like Manchester City – I admire their dedication to excellence and recognise that their dominance is the result of relentless professionalism not a god given gift. I think they probably do good things for the women’s game and local community too. If you’re going to buy your way to success, at least they’ve done it with a degree of class.
But theirs is not the same football I watch. Like one of those genetic curiosities where man is more closely related to a fish than a monkey, if you were to pick apart the DNA of the lower leagues, you’d probably find it had more in common with club rugby than with the Premier League. And it’s not less valid because of it.
So, what did we watch on Tuesday? Who knows? Nobody could really calibrate it – some said that if, by some miracle, we contrived to win, then Karl Robinson would take all the undeserved glory, if we got obliterated, then it would crush us for the rest of the season. They probably wouldn’t play a strong team anyway. We practically talked ourselves into it being a non-event.
Robinson’s response was curious – we’re playing the best team in the country and one of best in the world, so we field a weakened team. Was that to avoid the impact of a crushing defeat on morale? To make us appear as blasé as them and therefore, a little bit like them? Did he, like us, not really want the game to happen? Or did he just want to turn it into a debacle against which he couldn’t be judged? It just made the whole spectacle harder to understand.
The mismatch was so huge, it was no longer a game of football in the sense that we understand it. It was like a fight between a lion and a goldfish. The lion eviscerates the goldfish, nobody is surprised. It’s superior, but that doesn’t mean the lion can live under water. Or something. It was not ‘a match’ – as there was nothing to match them with us. It proved nothing, it was just, a thing. An exhibition. A piece of benign mid-week light entertainment.
The club seemed to confuse the size of our stadium with the size of our opponents. Dire warnings of parking and traffic chaos meant people like me turned up earlier than they would for any other game, even though it was a crowd size very similar to games against the likes of Swansea, Newcastle and Northampton. As a result, I was there when the City coach turned up flanked by Mercedes people-carriers full of, what? Secret service agents? They don’t have those when Accrington turn up.
At the back of the South Stand was some multi-directional high tech contraption set up by City which presumably was monitoring the players and their movements. For City, perhaps this was just an exercise in data capture – I assume they can now predict that Nicolas Otamendi will have a headache a week next Tuesday based on the way he traps the ball on his thigh. This is not the same football we play.
Nobody expected us to even come close to winning, so the tension of expectation was completely absent. Even our display, as impressive as it was, didn’t stir the loins like the unveiling of the giant flag against Swindon. It was all very polite and deferential. The Guardian said we were ‘outclassed’ in the way the lion ‘outclassed’ the goldfish.
So, if the result wasn’t the point of the exercise, did we learn anything? The game felt like one of those stress tests that new tech products go through so you can boast to your friends they’ll work even if you lived on Venus, which you won’t, rendering the boast both impressive, and meaningless.
We were given tests which we’ll never experience against the likes of Bradford or Southend. We were tested on how we would defend a 70 yard cross field pass to a man with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. At one point they were passing it around the back line, with every pass they’d move forward pushing us back while their midfield darted in between our legs offering options and generally bamboozling us. It was like the crusher scene in Star Wars – slow, relentless; an impressive show of force, but not one we’ll come across in League 1.
But, we coped pretty well; we weren’t humiliated like many feared, we showed that we do have discipline, something that’s been so absent this season. We probably saw the future of English football, until he disappears without trace under a pile of more fully developed expensive foreigners bought from the Bundesliga and elsewhere. If we apply ourselves in the league like we did on Tuesday, then we’ll be OK once we’re back with our own. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, but no more than that.